Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: May 27, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the significance of the Pope's visit to the Holy Land; whether the June 10 presidential elections is something to get excited about or just another ho-hum affair; and whether we about to witness a new Israeli unilateral initiative.

Q. What was the significance of the Pope's visit to the Holy Land?


A. If we are looking for a dramatic breakthrough in Jewish-Christian relations or in the peace process, the significance of Pope Francis' visit, concluded on Monday, was minor. On the other hand, a lot could be learned from the visit with regard to steady and cumulative progress toward more limited objectives set by Israel, by the Palestinians and by the Church.

First, Israel. Francis' wreath-laying visit to the tomb of Herzl marked the first time a pope had directly recognized the sovereign state of Israel. Francis' references to the Holocaust (he used the term "Shoah") and to Jews were also far more direct than those of his predecessors. (Apropos the Holocaust, we recall that Francis has pledged to finally open Vatican archives from WWII.)

Progress seems to have been registered, too, in Vatican-Israeli relations toward recognizing some sort of official Church role at the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper, which is located directly above the tomb of King David, a holy site for Jews and Muslims. And Israel's security forces, which normally seem to have their hands tied when dealing with right-religious Jewish terrorism, proved adept at keeping the extremists at bay, particularly at the Cenacle where they violently reject any Christian presence.

Little noticed in Israel was the participation in the Pope's visit of Lebanon-based Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, another first. Rai's visit raised hackles in some Lebanese circles. While he was careful not to say anything of political relevance, the very fact that he came was significant. After the Pope departed for Rome, Rai proceeded to minister to Maronite Christians in Jaffa and the Galilee. In what is certain to be understood as a strong gesture of Maronite-Israeli solidarity, Rai reportedly plans also to meet with South Lebanon Army veterans who took refuge in Israel in 2000 after the IDF withdrawal.

Second, the Palestinians. Francis referred to the "State of Palestine"--certainly a Vatican first. In an unscheduled stop, he prayed at the Bethlehem security barrier, thereby showing deference to the Palestinian dilemma under occupation. Francis' invitation to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray for peace with him at the Vatican next month was undoubtedly more welcome in Ramallah than in Jerusalem, where the Netanyahu government currently opposes any contact with the Palestinians over peace process-related issues. But this initiative will yield little more than a photo-op to close out Peres' tenure.

Moving to Christian issues, the visit was carefully planned to move a step closer toward reconciliation between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches, several of whose spiritual leaders were in attendance. This process has been going on for 50 years, since Pope Paul VI and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras met on the Mount of Olives. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem offered convenient neutral ground for gestures in this regard.

Then there were the intriguing but unspoken issues that hover over such a visit. After the Palestinian "trick" of getting Frances to pray spontaneously at the separation barrier, Netanyahu added the "shtick" of bringing him to a memorial to victims of terrorism on Mt. Herzl where he could lecture the Pontiff on the reason for building the barrier. And there were the three right-religious Jewish Home ministers who, obeying their extremist rabbis, boycotted all ceremonies linked to the visit. They sought to send an anti-Christian message, even as they supplement settlement budgets with monies raised by mainly American Evangelicals whose end-of-days scenario they conveniently ignore.

Did the Pope talk to Netanyahu or Peres about the growing quandary among Israel's own Christian Arabs, a community numbering some two percent of the population that currently confronts concerted efforts by Israel's right-wingers to persuade their youth to serve in the IDF and in so doing split them off from the overall community of Palestinian citizens of Israel? Did he discuss the recent wave of extremist "price tag" attacks on Christian sites? And while he did cite the quandary of Christians in the Arab Middle East, did he question Abbas at their meeting in Bethlehem as to why that city, the birthplace of Jesus, is now 80 percent Muslim?


Q. Last week you touched on the June 10 presidential elections. Is this something to get excited about or just another ho-hum affair?

A. On Tuesday the electoral list was closed. Now the elections are becoming interesting. We have never had more than three candidates for president of Israel; this time we have six, including two women, ex-Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik and retired Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner. It seems safe to assume that none of the six, each of whom needed at least 10 MK signatures to run, will win 61 out of 120 votes of Knesset members cast in secrecy in the first round. The second round is a runoff between the two highest scorers: will these be the two current favorites, former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of Likud and former defense minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben Eliezer of Labor? Or will a dark horse candidate make it to the final? This scenario points to the two non-politicians among the six, Dorner and Nobel prize winner (in chemistry) Dan Schechtman.

Schechtman scores very high in general opinion polls regarding the presidency, seemingly reflecting the public's disdain for politicians and for the politics that have characterized this race thus far. Will any of that rub off on the Knesset members in the first round? Here one potential kingmaker is FM Avigdor Lieberman who, like PM Netanyahu, disdains Rivlin but who would be hard put to vote for Labor's candidate Ben Eliezer.


Q. In an interview last week, PM Netanyahu acknowledged that in the Palestinian context "the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground." Are we about to witness a new Israeli unilateral initiative?


A. This was an interesting statement, so let's look at the entire text. Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg tells Netanyahu, "A lot of people in Israel, from [former Israeli Ambassador to the US] Michael Oren to [former head of Israeli military intelligence] Amos Yadlin, are looking at the idea of taking unilateral steps to disengage from the Palestinians."

Netanyahu replies: "We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. How do you get that if you can't get it through negotiations? It's true that the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground, from the center-left to the center-right. Many Israelis are asking themselves if there are certain unilateral steps that could theoretically make sense. But people also recognize that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn't improve the situation or advance peace--it created Hamastan, from which thousands of rockets have been fired at our cities."

Goldberg: So you're still committed to negotiations?

Netanyahu: Let us be clear--negotiations are always preferable. But six prime ministers since Oslo have failed in their pursuit of a negotiated settlement. (Netanyahu then goes to great lengths to explain why Mahmoud Abbas is not a viable partner for a settlement.)

There are three interesting points in Netanyahu's remarks. First, by associating unilateral steps with the center-left and center-right, he appears to be considering only unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank, not unilateral annexation--which is advocated by the far-right (including Likud presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin, incidentally) but not the center. Second, he makes the case that negotiations, while preferable, don't work, anchoring his view in the collective failure of his predecessors. Third, he acknowledges that public support for unilateral withdrawal is growing, including among political currents (center-right) associated with his coalition.

Netanyahu is known to have discussed unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank in the past, with Quartet representatives searching for alternatives to failed negotiations. He seems to come back to this issue whenever the process is completely stalled. Is he seriously considering this option? The Prime Minister's Office hastened to clarify that no settlements would be involved in any unilateral move. Does this mean Netanyahu is thinking of withdrawing from West Bank territory in Area C that is empty of settlements (and there is still such territory)? Or is he clutching at whatever straw a journalist throws him in an effort to appear dedicated to and involved in a solution, even as he commissions more and more settlements and dismisses queries about them.

Here Goldberg could have done better. He proceeds to ask Netanyahu "Why continue to grow settlements at all when you're trying to negotiate?" Netanyahu replies that the settlements "are not the core of the problem". Goldberg allows Netanyahu to claim that settlement expansion is confined to the blocs destined in any case to be included in territorial "swaps" while conveniently ignoring more than a hundred "outposts" that are expanding outside the blocs and marauding bands of price-tag settler youth invading Palestinian villages. Netanyahu then moves the discussion to regional issues.

 Settlement proliferation is a clear sign that Netanyahu is flouting his own public commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state through creeping annexation based on settlement expansion. Settlements may or may not be preventing negotiations over a two-state solution, but they definitely are moving Israel toward a non-Zionist one-state solution. They may conceivably, as Netanyahu argues, not be an impediment to peace, but without peace they certainly are an impediment to Netanyahu's own "Jewish state" goal.